First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 39

painters have agreed with Fortis’s prem- ises, insisting that realism is not part of their artistic heritage. Also important, perhaps, has been the impact of Native American, transnational influences, such as the broad interest in so-called “legend painting.” Indigenous people have always been global citizens, as Joel Sherzer once insisted in a book documenting similar influences in Guna verbal arts. In the early 1970s, Uriel Díaz initi- ated the first experiments in this area by mixing village scenes and more realistic portraits with less representational reflections on Guna foundational stories. Among the art naïve specialists following in Luis Méndez’s path, a special interest developed in these subjects, partly due to the growing tourist market and outsiders’ fascination with such topics. Some painters even operated small museums, focusing on Guna beliefs and culture. From 2003 until his recent death, Teodoro Torres (Guna, 1953–2017) operated a gallery in Nalunega. Nalunega is a small island community, situated at the far western end of Guna Yala, an area visited by a regular stream of cruise ships, yachts, and foreign tourists. Torres, who had spent years studying Guna esoteric knowledge, attempted to visualize many of its tenets in sometimes abstract and spinning paintings that he fashioned on discarded boat parts, driftwood, and similarly castoff objects. Much of his Museo Orgun Nega was constructed of plastic bottles, which Torres collected on the shoreline. The talented Torres was an interesting man—part shaman, part entrepreneur, and a grassroots environmentalist. Ontological art reached its most mature manifestation in the career of Oswaldo De León Kantule, or Achu (Guna, b. 1964). Achu has spent his adult years in Canada where he fell under the influence of Norval Morrisseau (Bingwi Neyaashi Ojibwe, 1931/2– 2007). Morrisseau’s explorations of his Anishinaabe heritage served to inform Achu’s thoughts about Guna culture. Much like Morrisseau, Achu boasts an illustrious background: he is a direct descendant of Nele Kantule, Guna Yala’s most important 20th-century leader. He has drawn on this parentage to project a wealth of Guna beliefs, histories, and practices, but Achu always insists that he is “not painting for the tourists.” His representations are varied, often mixing perspectives shaped by his daily endeavors in Canada or his thoughts on such contentious issues as environ- mental degradation in Guna Yala. Achu’s insights are fluid and complex, and his images stand distant from Méndez’s depictions of picturesque villages. THE FUTURE OF GUNA ART WHERE IS GUNA PAINTING HEADED TODAY? If the past is indic- ative of the future, Guna art is likely to continue its evolution, especially as it absorbs new influences in both urban and international contexts. Over half of the Guna people now live in Panama City, or its immediate environs. One possi- bility is that Native painters will follow the direction other artists have pursued in this area. In recent years, Panama has experienced rising Indigenous involvement in fashion design, theater, rock ’n’ roll, jazz, filmmaking, and hip hop. Choreographer Iguandili López Smith (Guna) comfortably mixes Guna movements with the aesthetics of ballet and modern dance. Today Smith heads the National School of Dance, over- seeing its lively and eclectic programs. Similarly, Guna photographers Naypiler Hackin and Duiren Wagua explore such subjects as the lives of the capital’s Native American residents. As Sherzer notes, the Guna have always been global citizens. However, these new turns have made their connectedness more obvious, while also serving to break down longstanding stereotypes and open the door to further developments. Among the next genera- tion, perhaps we shall see a Guna painter who chooses to focus more exclusively on Indigenous life in the city. In some sense, Luis Méndez pointed the way. Even as he gazed nostalgically toward Guna Yala, Méndez grounded his life in the capital, expanding Panama’s concep- tion of what it means to be Indigenous. SPRING 2019 | 37